By Leah Linscheid
The 288-student Highland School District has felt the pressure budget constraints and dwindling student numbers have placed on Wisconsin’s rural schools.
Despite that crunch, the district’s staff is working to establish an alternative learning environment that may provide an advantage in funding and education unavailable in larger districts.
Coping with the recession and less federal and state aid, the Highland District in Iowa County has been forced to cut back teacher positions and hours, according to Principal Josh Tarrell.
During the 2010-’11 school year, for example, Highland lost nearly $500 per student. The district currently receives approximately $7,500 per student from state government aid, or almost two-thirds of its general budget of $3,147,680. Every $1 loss in aid means reduced services.
Regardless of the funding battles fought by Highland and other rural schools, Tarrell said the school has managed to avoid staff layoffs.
“We’ve been lucky,” Tarrell said.
Pay freezes and changes in insurance benefits have also helped the district to address a budget that has become harder to balance.
Highland has fared decently in comparison with urban school districts in Dane County. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that, out of 16 Dane County school districts, only Monona Grove and Mount Horeb School Districts issued teacher layoff notices for the 2012-’13 school year. Similar to Highland’s strategy, the schools cut back on staff positions, hours and benefits to deal with new budget shortfalls.
Districts have also resorted to pay freezes in recent years, including the Madison Metropolitan School District, according to MMSD Budget Director Donna Williams.
“We’re all facing the same problems, just at different scales,” Williams said of the hardships facing all public schools. “We still have the same issues. We need to cut someplace, and all we can do is try to make the classroom the last place that it’s going to be.”
Highland District Superintendent David Romstad agreed that problems faced by rural and urban schools are really not that different.
“We have the same problems that city schools have,” Romstad insists. “The only difference is the number of zeros at the end of our budget.”
Sometimes, there are few zeros; the Highland School District’s Class of 2012 has 22 graduates.
Arguably the largest obstacle rural schools face is a steady decrease in enrollment numbers. State aid is partially allocated according to enrollment numbers, and a significant lack of growth has severely affected Highland’s aid. The district’s enrollment hit 288 this year year—a 17% drop in 10 years, according to state records.
In comparison, the Madison District experienced a fairly steady enrollment in the last decade, Williams said. Current enrollment is at approximately 25,000.
But, according to former Highland Middle School teacher Shannon Straka, small numbers of students don’t necessarily mean bad news for students.
“[Bigger schools] don’t even know the kids’ names there, and in these small schools, it’s like a family,” Straka said. “You’re together for years, and you get to know everybody pretty well. You know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Despite budget, enrollment and general economic difficulties, Highland School District has been able to strive, partially because of a new initiative that is working to revamp classroom structure.
The change—going to a “charter school” designation for the middle school—shifted student focus from structured classwork to project-based learning, according to Romstad.
“It allows us flexibility in both teaching and learning,” Romstad said. “It allows us a ton more professional development for our staff, and it allows students to be the initiators of their education. They’re more responsible for the planning and execution of their learning experiences.”
The charter school initiative, first proposed by Straka and Romstad to comprise only a handful of students in the district, grew to encompass the entire middle school. The district began its planning stages in the 2009-’10 school year and was the first middle school in the state to be fully converted to a charter school.
A major goal of the charter school initiative is to implement what Romstad calls “21st century skills.” Reminiscent of classes taught at a technical college, he described real-life skills that would benefit students after graduation, such as communication and collaboration.
Highland Middle School teacher Julie Tess added critical and creative thinking and self-direction to the list of skills she believes charter learning provides students.
“These are things kids are going to need when they leave, and I don’t know that all these big schools have the flexibility to focus on these skills,” Tess said. “We’re teaching them how to think, not what to think. And, because of that, they’re going to do fine on every test they’re ever given.”
The initiative has proved valuable in terms of funding, as well. Grants from both state and federal government provide the school with $175,000 annually for a three-year planning and implementation period for the middle school only. Grants of $200,000 per year were approved when the elementary school applied to also be a charter school.
“That’s one huge difference for our small school,” Tarrell said.
The charter school initiative is not all about the money, however. The program will provide small-town students with opportunities typically not available to small school districts, according to Tess.
“A lot of people think we got this huge grant and that’s it, but we wanted to provide more opportunities for kids,” Tess said of the charter school initiative. “In small schools, I think, we can give them a good foundation, but the opportunities just aren’t there. [This charter school] opens a thousand doors to different opportunities for our kids, plus it’s given us the flexibility to teach more. Sometimes in a larger school, you don’t have that flexibility.”
Tess described projects students have undertaken in the charter school, including one that required them to enter into the homes of Highland citizens and videotape interviews. The project provided insight into the town’s heritage and history—something Tess believes was invaluable for students.
“It was a very worthwhile project. It was such a good experience for all of them,” Tess said. “Eight of the senior citizens who we did interviews with, died, and that was hard for the kids, but when we started losing these residents, I thought how valuable these movies are.”
The taped interviews were edited into short movies and returned to the families of those who had passed away, perhaps the ultimate example of how the charter school initiative has collaborated and given back to the Highland community.
The plan is currently in its second year of implementation and has received widespread support from students, staff and the community.
“In our first year of implementation, we had close to 80 community members take part in our students’ learning,” Tess said. “The walls of our school became the walls of the community and beyond. Kids can learn so much about history when shared by the people who lived it. Parents have commented to me that their kids know more about Highland history than they do.”
Once the 2011-’12 school year ends, Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction will decide whether to re-allocate the charter grant for Highland’s 2013-’14 year, Tarrell said.
Budget constraints and waning government aid will continue to be challenges that Highland School District must face, but the school’s ability to adapt to a new style of learning may help its students and staff thrive.